Anonymous, “How It Feels to Have Been an Adopted Child,” 1920

This personal story by an adult adoptee shares the sentimentality of many adoption narratives from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries while offering insight into one woman’s encounter with the stigma and fear that surrounded adoption. The author offers a sharp critique of professional standards that, in the name of child welfare and science, increasingly emphasized the importance of placing “normal” children in “normal” families headed by middle-class married couples. Anecdotal evidence of adoptions by single women abounds in both fictional and non-fictional narratives before 1940. This story is one example, and it concludes by mentioning adoptions by single men. These were probably much rarer, and almost always involved the adoption of boys. For a more negative perspective on the experience of adoption by single women, see Carol S. Prentice, An Adopted Child Looks at Adoption.

One day last week, just after I had settled myself in one of the coaches of a suburban train at the Terminal, in Boston, two women came into the seat behind me. I could not see their faces; but their voices, low-pitched and refined, reached me distinctly. Apparently, they continued a conversation already begun.

“Will wants to adopt a child,” one of them said. “But I tell him I never could stand the moment when that child would realize that I was not its own mother. I can’t make myself believe that the feeling is the same as it is with your own flesh and blood.” . . . “If I could only believe it would be the same as my own when it grew up and that the child would feel that it was my child—”

Then and there I ached to whirl around and say: “Madam, it would! I know! I was an adopted child myself. It doesn’t make any difference.”

But I am a New Englander, saturated with the reserve of the locality in which I was reared. Not even for the sake of some little child, who might find a home with this woman and her “Will,” could I make myself turn about in the face of a coach full of people and tell my own story. But because I was such a coward, my conscience has bothered me until I decided to ask the editor of The American Magazine to let me tell that story to his readers.

When I was eight months old, I was adopted by an unmarried woman who was then almost fifty. Since she was a young girl she had taught in ungraded country schools, term after term. But in spite of that wearing experience she craved a child of her own.

She had a few hundred dollars saved from the ridiculously small sum she received for teaching—twenty-five or thirty dollars a month, I think—and she had a little house in which to live, besides a few acres of farm land she shared with a brother whose wife was dead.

With the shadows of old age beginning to fall, she heard of a baby not a mile away who lacked parents’ care and was causing the town’s three “selectmen” a great deal of embarrassment before they could get it to a state institution. She went after it, took it home, legally adopted it, gave it her name, and for thirty years was a wonderful mother—the most wonderful mother in the world, I think.

I was that child.

She must have begun, when I was still a baby, to talk to me about my coming to live with her; for I cannot remember ever being told, or ever experiencing any shock of realization that I was not her child.

To all intents and purposes, I was her child. . . .

Whenever the subject of my parents was mentioned as I grew older and went away from home, I learned it was easiest to come right out with, “I was adopted”—and have it over with. It is only when you are afraid someone will find out about it that there is any embarrassment. Like any other form of fear, it vanishes when you do not flinch, but say, “Come on! Do your worst. You can’t make me dodge.” And when there is no mystery there is no curiosity on the part of others, and the whole thing clears itself up. . . .

If that blessed woman had hesitated to take me off the hands of the selectmen because she thought she did not have money enough to take care of a child, I would have missed the riches of her wholesome up-bringing and her unstinted affection. These are the “advantages” which count most. More than all, there is the spirit of sharing what there is to be shared. . . .

As I think back it seems to me she was always on the job—loving me out of sheer stubbornness, never scolding, forever encouraging. I think of all this when I see some so-called “real” mothers, who seem to me most unmotherly, and when I hear of the insistence of child placement agencies that children be put into “normal” homes. If they had investigated my mother’s application for a child, they would have found her too old, too poor. They would have said that a home without a husband and father under these circumstances was not at all desirable.

“We can’t consider the needs of people who want children,” a superintendent of such an organization told me with a college-woman “scientificness” which brought out goose pimples on my wrists. “We think only of the children’s interests. When a woman is over forty, and particularly if she is unmarried, we very seldom consent.”

Then and there, I thanked the Lord that those three town fathers weren’t so fussy about me!

As far as missing a father goes, I did very often envy other children the dads who could make willow whistles and play jig tunes on harminicons. But not more than I should have done had I been living with my real (?) Mother and she had been a widow. A child is, of course, much more fortunate who can have both adopted parents; but I can bear witness to very happy childhood days with just a mother.

There are interesting cases of men who have adopted little boys. A city official thirty-five years old, whose wife and little son died, arranged to have his mother keep house for him, and adopted a boy of four, now a husky chap on a high-school football team. Another man, a bachelor, became the legal father of a very young baby boy, who is certianly the proverbial “pride and joy” of both the man himself and of the sister with whom he lives. . . .

The records do show that there are thousands of foster parents and thousands of adopted children who, like myself, declare that they have never known “any difference,” and who have lived happily ever after.


Source: Anonymous, “How It Feels to Have Been an Adopted Child,”American Magazine, August 1920, 72-73, 116.

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